The Rockets' Red Glare

Just what are "weapons of mass destruction," anyway?

If you thought that Iraq didn't have weapons of mass destruction when the United States invaded in 2003, you were wrong. Actually, Iraq had tons of WMD then, and it has them now, too -- as does virtually every other country in the world. The United States, of course, has WMD -- but you may be surprised to learn that it has had them for centuries, ever since the days when Francis Scott Key wrote those famous words about "bombs bursting in air." Key would have had no clue what a "WMD" was -- but no matter. According to modern U.S. statute, the explosions he describes fit the definition just fine.

The term "weapons of mass destruction" came into occasional use during the Cold War, often as a euphemism for nuclear weapons -- or for weapons yet to be developed that might have similar destructive capability. After the Berlin Wall fell, however, use of the term escalated greatly, and its meaning was much expanded.

In 1992, "weapons of mass destruction" was explicitly rendered into U.S. law as part of a defense authorization act and defined to cover not only nuclear weapons, but chemical and biological ones as well.

Then in 1994, the definition was expanded further as part of the Violent Crime Control Law Enforcement Act. According to current law -- that is, the U.S. Code (18 U.S.C. 2332a) -- the term "weapon of mass destruction" means:

(A) any destructive device as defined in section 921 of this title;
(B) any weapon that is designed or intended to cause death or serious bodily injury through the release, dissemination, or impact of toxic or poisonous chemicals, or their precursors;
(C) any weapon involving a biological agent, toxin, or vector (as those terms are defined in section 178 of this title); or
(D) any weapon that is designed to release radiation or radioactivity at a level dangerous to human life

And that ominous section 921 defines "destructive device" to be:

(A) any explosive, incendiary, or poison gas --
    (i) bomb,
    (ii) grenade,
    (iii) rocket having a propellant charge of more than four ounces,
    (iv) missile having an explosive or incendiary charge of more than one-quarter ounce,
    (v) mine, or
    (vi) device similar to any of the devices described in the preceding clauses;

(B) any type of weapon (other than a shotgun or a shotgun shell which the Attorney General finds is generally recognized as particularly suitable for sporting purposes) by whatever name known which will, or which may be readily converted to, expel a projectile by the action of an explosive or other propellant, and which has any barrel with a bore of more than one-half inch in diameter; and

(C) any combination of parts either designed or intended for use in converting any device into any destructive device described in subparagraph (A) or (B) and from which a destructive device may be readily assembled.


According to this definition, perhaps the real question is not what is a WMD, but what isn't? Not only were the attacks that Key witnessed WMDs in action, but so were the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, the 1861 bombardment of Fort Sumter, the 1983 shoot-down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, the 2007 assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and the pipe bombings (but not the shootings) in the 1999 Columbine High School massacre.

Lest this inquiry appear to be of only academic interest, consider that individuals have been tried and convicted based on the U.S. Code's definition. Take the would be bomber of shopping malls in Rockford, Ill., who traded two used stereo speakers for a bogus handgun and four equally bogus hand grenades supplied by an FBI informant. He was later sentenced to 35 years for attempting to use weapons of mass destruction. (That would be the grenades, one presumes.) Were toy rockets, missile-propelled firecrackers, or paintball guns used for malicious intent, they, too, might qualify.

Because of their large bore, even Revolutionary War-era muskets satisfy the current legal definition. But at least we now know why that historic shot at Lexington was "heard round the world." It, too, was a WMD.



Central America's Coming Crisis

Honduras is just the beginning.

If democracy hit Central America like a wave in the mid-1980s, it was one that left more than a few bubbles of authoritarianism behind. As recent turmoil confirms, the region's transitions from dictatorship to democracy were interrupted or left incomplete. Now, a coup in Honduras, electoral fraud in Nicaragua, and assassinations in Guatemala are just a few signs of trouble ahead.

The region's crisis is one of leadership -- of a cadre of elite who promised democracy but have failed to provide it. Central Americans today are tired of the same-old political elites and parties, many of which are left over from three decades ago. Today, they can boast only neglected public bureaucracies and economies wracked by global shocks. Yet in spite of their failings and a groundswell of discontent, ruling parties across the region are refusing to go.

Nobody fits this description better than the ousted president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, whose expulsion followed his attempts to stay in power beyond what even the ruling elite could tolerate. Zelaya comes from the ranks of the Liberal Party, where he initially stood out as distinct from the governing elite. But he soon failed to prove himself any different. He has not delivered on key promises from his campaign: to control crime, protect civil society groups from conservative intimidation, and increase economic growth.

Poor performance certainly hurt Zelaya's popularity. But where he really lost points were in his increasingly frequent attempts to consolidate power. The trouble intensified when he conspired with the electoral tribunal to remove Elvin Santos as the presidential candidate of his party in favor of Roberto Micheletti (who has now, ironically, taken Zelaya's place as president after the coup). Zelaya bolstered his ambitions by leveraging economic gains from a preferential oil deal negotiated with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. He also drew closer to left-wing leader Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and courted local social movements. That backing gave him the bravado to order an informal referendum on whether to amend the Constitution -- a move widely thought to be a plot to allow him to run for office again. Zelaya upset his fellow political elites, the parties that put him in power, the electoral tribunal, the Supreme Court, and the business elite by circumventing them all. Furious, Congress appointed an investigative commission three days before the national survey began, encouraging the Army to remove Zelaya.

Although there is plenty of blame to go around for Zelaya's follies and the coup that followed, Honduras's crisis is the product of a larger problem: a ruling elite that initiated the early democratic transition but was unwilling and unable to consolidate its completion. Consider the chain of events: A democratically elected leader circumvents democratic institutions so that he can face (democratic) elections again. In turn, Congress asks the Army to illegally depose him -- with the widespread sanction of other legitimate political institutions. Now, the dilemma for democrats is: Should Honduras return power to a freely elected president who undermined democratic norms, or should the country respect his undemocratic removal widely supported by the legitimate political system?

The failure to address Central America's democratic failings created not only this coup, but a region of polarized societies unable or unwilling to confront poverty and crime or promote economic development. The situation is more urgent than ever as daunting outside forces contribute to weaken fragile states. Transnational organized crime in Honduras, for example, has pushed the murder rate over the past three years to more than 15 homicides a day.

Meeting such challenges will involve facing down and refreshing the region's entrenched power structures. There are countless more "Zelayas" across Central America who will have to come to terms with their inability to achieve true democracy -- and the backlash that may be headed their way. Nicaragua's President Ortega, for example, belongs to a generation of political leaders comfortable with an old-fashioned authoritarian and populist model, even as the world becomes increasingly intolerant of such autocrats. Costa Rica's Óscar Arias, an old cadre of the social democratic National Liberation Party, represents similar ideals. Rather than passing the torch to a new generation, he recently anointed a party member, Laura Chinchilla, as his preferred successor.

Central America's democratic time has come -- a time to replace the old governing elites and parties with new approaches to the realities of international pressures and stalled economic development. Should the transitions fail this time, Honduras will not be the last trouble spot.

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